Reflections on my UNOOSA internship and the importance of communication in science

by Alanna Brannam

Alanna Brannam

From January until June 2020, I had the pleasure of serving as Communications Intern at the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). Here in Vienna, I worked on public information and outreach activities, learning much about international relations and the space industry along the way. I am pleased to be now sharing my journey to this position through the Space4Youth Stories initiative.

Though I have long been interested in space activities, the possibility of a career in the aerospace industry was only recently presented after I completed several internships. While I was studying for my Bachelor of Arts (BA) in International and Global Studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, USA, I served as an intern in the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Vienna. This experience was extremely informative, and it was in this capacity that I learned about the United Nations (UN) system first-hand. By covering the Vienna-based organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and UNOOSA, I witnessed the impact of effective communications efforts. By publicizing their projects, missions, and goals, these offices are able to maintain a strong working relationship with member states and connect with the greater public on social media. Ultimately, the success of multilateralism, international cooperation and human development are dependent on public support and the sharing of common values for humanity's future. In my public affairs-based role, I also learned about the technical aspects and positive results of the UN's work at meetings and events, which piqued my interest in gaining further experience in the UN system.

In between obtaining my BA in 2019 and starting my graduate studies in 2020, I had the opportunity to partake in internships at The Brookings Institution in Washington, DC and the United Nations Department of Global Communications at headquarters in New York City, respectively. In these roles, I built upon my communications and writing skills, and my interest in a career focused on international diplomacy was further confirmed. Additionally, I was able to attend highly formative events, such as a space security panel discussion at Brookings and high-level events at the UN General Assembly in New York. I remained interested in pursuing a space-related internship, yet as a liberal arts graduate with a non-technical background, the options seemed slim. Thus, I was highly pleased to discover the Communications Intern vacancy at UNOOSA on iSeek, the UN careers website.


I had the opportunity to shake the Secretary-General's hand at UN Headquarters when he thanked the Department of Global Communications for our efforts following the General Assembly.

As the Communications Intern at UNOOSA, I had a wide variety of tasks. For example, during the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee session in February, I assisted with implementing meetings and attended various convenings, through which I learned extensively about how space technology can help achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Additionally, I assisted in editing the 2019 Annual Report for the Office, which was recently released, as well as various other publications and postings on our website. More responsibilities of mine included, but were not limited to: drafting and editing social media posts for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, compiling and distributing news roundups on current events in the space sector to our staff, preparing press releases on milestones in our work, helping draft speeches and video messages on space issues for senior staff and assisting in keeping the website (unoosa.org) up to date. Through these tasks, I have gained in-depth knowledge not only about the United Nations and UNOOSA, but also about the extensive benefits of space-based technology and cooperation in the sector.

When career paths in the aerospace industry are discussed, non-technical roles are not always at the forefront of the conversation. Yet, without the work of non-technical individuals, the industry could not function. Roles such as those related to legal cooperation and procurement are critical for the success of scientific applications themselves. Similarly, public affairs and external relations roles allow the space industry and the achievements therein to be at the forefront of conversations about innovation, discovery, and international cooperation. Effective communication is particularly important in the space field, as space exploration is a very expensive effort and many people may not see the benefits of investing such a large amount of resources beyond our planet.

This is due to the fact that the numerous benefits of space projects for life on Earth and the future of humanity are not always well-known. In fact, research shows that space positively contributes to each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the UN's 2030 Agenda. As part of the UNOOSA Communications team, it was a priority of mine to showcase how these technologies are intertwined with sustainability on Earth and our quality of life here. For example, they help us achieve better water management, more sustainable agriculture and increased resilience to natural disasters.

At UNOOSA, we also strive to communicate how space tools form the backbone of our daily modern lives, enabling instruments such as satellite navigation, internet communication and remote financial transactions.

It is also important to us that everyone feels they can engage with the opportunities offered by space, no matter whether they start from a basic or advanced level of knowledge on the topic; therefore, we aim to be as inclusive as possible in our communication strategy. Many of our webinars are open for all to attend to learn more about space and its applications, and we take great care about using language that everyone can understand, even when covering highly technical topics.

In all of our outreach, we anticipate and address the fundamental questions the public may have about space endeavours and the UN role in space, such as "Why should we invest in space?" or "Why are our governments and the UN devoting resources to space?". We believe these questions should guide all our communication efforts. By addressing the ultimate goal of space exploration, which is lifting humanity to new heights, and highlighting the benefits space technology offers for life on Earth, we can engage our audience with the sector. As the UNOOSA Communications Intern, I made these topics accessible to the public through social media posts, with the goal of fostering understanding of space endeavours and their importance.

Space exploration also has the role of providing inspiration: it's the journey that matters. New missions and technologies may not always fully achieve their goals, but they nonetheless lay the stepping stones for future achievements and inspire people all over the world to engage with scientific endeavours. We pay a lot of attention to these aspects, and through communications efforts, UNOOSA highlights inclusiveness and diversity to inspire young people worldwide. Additionally, we facilitate connections between those new to the space sector and career mentors, for example through the Space4Women Mentor Network.

Communications are also a key part of UNOOSA's efforts to advance international cooperation. In the satellite industry, for example, through information sharing and research collaborations, countries all over the world - including non-spacefaring nations - benefit from Earth observation and data made possible by satellites. At UNOOSA, I worked alongside staff members who facilitate such international cooperation, in addition to capacity-building initiatives for all countries to be able to leverage these tools. Such projects, for example under UNOOSA Access to Space 4 All Initiative, are increasing the accessibility of the sector, which is vital for allowing the benefits of space to reach everyone, everywhere.

To ensure the success of such projects, public outreach and communications initiatives are key. Examples of this include raising awareness of opportunities such as KiboCube (an opportunity for developing countries to deploy a cube satellite) and publicizing capacity-building workshops to learn about space tools contributes to attracting applicants and talented individuals and building skills all over the world - which is in line with UNOOSA's mandate.

My internship experiences at the U.S. Mission in Vienna and UNOOSA have taught me that the foundation of communications initiatives in technical fields - including, but not limited to the space sector - is making information accessible to and understandable for the general public. In this aspect, my liberal arts undergraduate education and humanities-based major helped me immensely. Since I do not have a STEM background, I possessed a largely rudimentary understanding of the scientific and technical specifications of space-related projects and missions when I joined UNOOSA. Assisted by attending the STSC meetings in-person, I gained familiarity with these concepts, which in turn informed my process for drafting social media posts and other communication materials.

At the Vienna International Center, home to UNOOSA.

Outer space is inherently mysterious. Human activities therein are complex and ever-changing, and through communications and social media these missions can be publicized and explained. As we continue to explore and answer questions about the universe and our galaxy, strong public information initiatives will be increasingly necessary to show why scientific endeavours should not be Earthbound, since they benefit our planet in so many ways.

This fall, I will begin my legal studies in the United States. I aim to work in the defense sector as a lawyer, helping to ensure continued cooperation in space for the benefit of all. My internship experiences at UNOOSA and in the UN system will undoubtedly prove invaluable, having provided me with first-hand experience in diplomacy, a strong background knowledge of outer space affairs and skills to communicate complex concepts effectively to a variety of audiences.

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